Developer: NCS Corp
Based on: Playing with power. Super power. Well, that and every anime ever made in the '70s and '80s.
By MCBanjoMike | April 14, 2008
Scholars and geeks love to argue over the precise moment that videogames got their start, but there's no debating that the medium has advanced significantly in the decades since Spacewar! climbed onto land and took its first halting flipper-steps toward a better future. Simple text games have given way to immense and immersive 3D worlds, teeming with artificial life or even peopled by the virtual avatars of hundreds of other players. However, despite these huge technological advances, the numerous gameplay innovations and the vast selection of new titles arriving on a weekly basis, the majority of all videogames ever created are predicated on a single idea: Empowerment of the player.
It's an easy sell -- who wouldn't want to be an elite commando, a star quarterback or the lead guitarist for a few hours? Videogames give us a chance to vent our frustrations by smashing virtual faces in; alternately, we can construct our own worlds and societies, ruling them with an iron fist, occasionally subjecting them to tornados and nuclear apocalypses. Either way, most of the things that the player does in a game they could not -- should not -- attempt in real life.
It's hard to get a sense of scale when even the rabbits are 10 feet tall.
That being the case, it's somewhat surprising that we don't see more games featuring that ultimate expression of empowerment, the giant robot. Scrawny 13-year-olds the world over could tell you that nothing makes a better avatar than a 60-foot-tall killing machine made of steel and bristling with hi-tech weaponry. Few other modes of escapism offer the delightful possibility of literally crushing your enemies beneath your heel, either. And yet, especially in the 8- and 16-bit eras, we've seen surprisingly few games that exploit the concept of huge, anthropomorphic robots blowing things to bits. Outside of a brief renaissance in the late '90s, which brought tabletop games like MechWarrior and Heavy Gear to computers just as 3D accelerators became commonplace, only a handful of games in the genre have made their way to western shores and living rooms.
It's fortunate, then, that among the few that we did see were gems like Cybernator.
Cybernator is a good old-fashioned 2D action game that puts you in the pilot boots of Jake, the dashing pilot of what the game refers to as an assault suit: Just your average gigantic humanoid robot, ma'am. Jake, né Jake Brain, is based out of a carrier called Versis and has the enviable task of destroying bad robots and the bad men who pilot them... in space.
Dramatic encounters abound in Cybernator.
There's probably more to the story that this, but it's very hard to care. Cybernator was brought over in an era when quality localization was still something of a fever dream and story scenes tended to confuse rather than elucidate -- and this was almost 10 years before Metal Gear Solid 2! Names were changed in translation, important details omitted, scenes censored; the end result is somewhat difficult to follow. Suffice to say that there are good guys and bad guys, and that your enemies' most important contribution to the story is to stand in front of your guns for a while before exploding.
Thankfully, history has shown that a cohesive narrative isn't exactly a prerequisite to a good action game. Cybernator rises above its poorly-executed story through a combination of great gameplay, strong visuals and that all-important sense of empowerment which makes videogames so addictive. Indeed, more than anything else, Cybernator succeeds at making you feel as though you're in charge of a 1000-ton steel behemoth with a very large chip on its shoulder. Your assault suit is an imposing piece of machinery that looks dangerous and easily dwarfs the puny humans that you occasionally encounter throughout the levels of the game. The damage that you deal also seems suitably impressive, leading to screen filling explosions and bits of debris flying every which way.
In keeping with the mighty-but-ponderous nature of your assault suit, the pace of the game is skewed a bit towards the slower side of things, at least when compared to other action games from the same era. Indeed, much of the gameplay consists of strategically positioning your assault suit to get a good shot at your enemies without giving them the same luxury. This works pretty well, because the game boasts a system that the back of the box refers to as "360 degree aiming" -- a system that more or less delivers on its promise. Your mech is capable of aiming at approximately 30 different angles, an impressive level of control that allows you to precisely pick off opposing suits seeking refuge behind various chunks of scenery wherever you go. The difference between victory and defeat in a level of Cybernator is often the player's ability to utilize this mechanic fully to spare themselves as much damage as possible during firefights.
The vulcan cannon reflects off solid surfaces, adding an extra layer to your strategic onion.
This "tactics lite" approach to gameplay goes hand-in-hand with the slower, more deliberate movement of your assault suit. While technically pretty spry for a 40-foot monster, the suit does behave with a certain sense of mass that lends some credibility to the game. The suit's dash maneuver takes a second to build up speed and another to come to a stop at the end. Your jump is aided by a booster pack that can lift you higher or slow your fall, but don't expect it to reverse your direction in an instant if you're tumbling out of control towards a bottomless pit. Not to say that all is realistically detailed -- you won't be worrying about weapons loadouts or coolant flushing -- but there's a satisfying sense of inertia in this game that makes it that much easier to believe that your giant robot really is giant. So that's nice.
Happily for us, Cybernator has more going for it than just a sense of very literal gravity; the game also benefits from sharp graphics and a fantastic attention to detail, not to mention varied gameplay and a great arsenal. Your mech is detailed and nicely animated: the dash maneuver ends with a quick-step animation as you slow down, walls and floors are damaged by your weaponry, shell casings fly as you fire your vulcan cannon (and even float away in the zero-G areas never to return, a nice touch). Aside from a somewhat muted color palette, the enemies all look good and the backgrounds are well done. Level designs cover a nice range, too -- while many of the levels are fairly platformy, others have you floating in space, suspended in free-fall as you re-enter the atmosphere, or racing through snow-covered mountains while bombers accost you from above.
No sense worrying over the fact that you just shot down a shuttle full of people - they were the bad guys!
This is not to say that all is good and right in the world of Cybernator. The game suffers from overly complicated controls: between the dashing, boosting, aiming, shooting and jumping, to say nothing of switching weapons and deploying your riot shield at key moments, you might find yourself wishing you had some extra fingers to press all the buttons you'll be using. It's the kind of game that might benefit from a more modern controller: Mapping the aiming and shooting to the right analog stick and putting other necessities on the shoulder buttons would probably make the game a little easier on the hands.
There is also the little matter of the music, which is that extremely generic brand of anime dreck that was common in the early '90s. While fans of the genre might find it appropriate, most players will either find it forgettable or else wish it were forgettable. There's also a bit of slowdown when the action gets intense, although this usually happens at times when danger is at a minimum, i.e. right after you defeat a boss. Finally, the aforementioned story also hogs the spotlight a bit too much, breaking up the gameplay to torment you with largely irrelevant dialogue.
Or we could not do that at all! That would be fun, too.
These gripes aside, Cybernator is an excellent action game with great gameplay, inventive mechanics and a level of attention to detail rarely seen on the SNES. Despite its many redeeming qualities, it seems to have been largely passed over during the heyday of 16-bit consoles. Now that it has been rereleased on the Wii's Virtual Console,
a whole new generation the exact same generation that should have been playing it 15 years ago can finally go back and discover this underrated gem.